In Greece, Popular Resentment Fuels Terrorism

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

ATHENS -- Three years ago and along Athens' busiest boulevards, an unassuming, black-clad man emerged from obscurity, staging a spectacular attack.

He weaved through a labyrinth of meandering side streets, knelt across the six lanes of Vassilis Sofias, mounted a Chinese-made rocket-launcher on his right shoulder and fired an anti-tank grenade straight into the heart of the U.S. embassy -- one of the most fortified diplomatic missions in the world.

The hit was a miss. The grenade glided past a huge American seal fixed on the front of the embassy, piercing, instead, through a window a few feet above, landing in the ambassador's private bathroom, on the third floor.

No one was injured, and no one was in the boxy building at the time of the attack. Still, the pre-dawn hit, was emblematic of a resurgence in homegrown terrorism which Greek security officials claimed they had erased after dismantling the country's deadliest and fiercely anti-American terror organization, November 17, in 2002.

Last week and after a rash of raids in the biggest anti-terror crackdown in recent years, authorities said they found the mystery rocket launcher among a panoply of guns, munition and explosives stashed by Greek terrorists in a tiny apartment in central Athens. Police also arrested five men and one woman believed to be members of the Revolutionary Struggle terror network.

A far-left militant spin-off of November 17, the group claimed responsibility for the 2007 U.S. embassy attack, publishing a terror tract that featured a grab-bag of complaints against globalization, poverty, the European Union and the then-American administration's role in Iraq.

As part of a new vintage of far-left extremism, Revolutionary Struggle debuted with a blast in 2003, targeting an Athens court house. It has since then used crude homemade bombs to strike at symbols of wealth, power and the establishment, orchestrating hits against banks and police stations_ even, an assassination attempt against a former culture and police minister.

With each strike and getaway that followed, Revolutionary Struggle gained prominence as a slippery and cunning urban guerilla group.

Senior police officials say they are hot on the trails of at least two additional members as interrogations of the suspects and witnesses continue. American officials, however, remain guarded in their assessment of the police investigation.

Forensics examinations and DNA tests, they say, have yet to match any of the suspects' fingerprints with evidence found on the rocket launcher, police concede.

Even so, does the group's operational bust-up spell the end to Greece's lingering terrorism problem?

Far from it. The sheer volume, alone, of the weapons and ammunition found in at least four of the group's safe houses suggests that Revolutionary Struggle is hardly the four-to-six-person band it is being made out to be, security experts say. Its stockpile of weapons, they add, point to a clandestine operation with a lethal appetite and robust recruitment process.

Take the explosives found in just one of the two weapons cashes stormed this week.

At least 195 kgs (429 lbs) of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil were stashed in a closed garage cuddled in the residential suburb of Kareas, where the terror suspects allegedly frequented upon notice, gathering at a nearby cemetery to chart out banks heists and bombing runs. The explosives counted three times the amount of ordinances found in the possession of November 17, a small but deadly terror group that killed at least 23 people in Athens in a sporadic anti-American, anti-imperialist campaign over nearly three decades.

"The quantity is huge," police spokesman Thanassis Kokkalakis said. "It could have brought down a 6-story apartment block."

Prosecutors have charged the six suspects with participating in bomb attacks, a terror group, attempted murder and other crimes. All have denied any criminal wrongdoing, refusing to divulge any details of their operations, including police speculation that they were preparing an all-out assault on the country's national police headquarters in central Athens.

Anarchists and leftists extremists frequently target state buildings, foreign banks and business interests in low-grade bomb hits. But since coming to power in October, the socialist government has made security a priority, billing the latest terror arrests a major success and test of national resolve as it struggles to claw out of an devastating debt crisis.

Even so, security experts have criticized authorities for not doing enough to crush a new generation of extremists feeding on resentment of the country's feckless political elite and most recently, austerity measures prescribed by Western monetary institutions.

"These people are full of rage and hate against the system, and so long as the country's political youth movement that thrived in the 1970s and 1980s fails to absorb them today, they will find refuge in this pool of rebellion and armed struggle," says Mary Bossis, a leading terrorism analyst and professor at the Greek College of Defense.

"They don't have an ideology. In fact, they shun the ideologies of their predecessors," she adds.

Manned by Marxist-Leninist ideologues who grew out of a popular struggle against American's tacit support for a military junta that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974, November 17 cast onto Greece's turbulent political landscape a year later, gunning down the Atehns station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, Ruchard Welch.

Today, Revolutionary Struggle and an handful of militant extremists operating with impunity have tapped into a deep pool of popular resentment for the establishment, punishing the rich on behalf of the poor. It remains unclear whether Greece's new vintage of terrorists retain links between them, or continue to compete amongst each other to establish supremacy, as Bossis says, following the breakup of November 17, the most notorious of the leftist groups.

Either way, police officials concede, the fear of a retaliatory strike looms.

"The race is on," says a senior police official. "We have to get to them before they strike back at us."